North Korean defectors propose democracy activist Kim Seong-min for the National Assembly

Kim Seong-min, the founder of Free North Korea Radio, speaking at a press conference held at South Korea’s National Assembly on March 8.

North Korean defector organizations have issued an appeal to political parties preparing for next month’s National Assembly elections to include defectors in their line up for proportional representation seats and jointly recommended Kim Seong-min, the founder of Free North Korea Radio, as their preferred candidate.

Although made to all parties, the appeal was specifically directed at the ruling People Power Party (PPP), which so far is the only party to include defectors among its lawmakers.

“Within the defector community, there are warriors who have dedicated everything for the democratization of North Korea and improvement of human rights,” said Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who in 2020 became the first defector to be elected to the National Assembly. 

“Proportional representation seats should rightfully be given to such individuals as a matter of common sense and principle,” he said.

Thae was speaking at a press conference, which he hosted on March 8 at the National Assembly with representatives from nine defector organizations. 

These included the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (Heo Gwang-il), the National Association of North Korean Defector Organizations (Kim Heung-kwang), the National Association of North Korean Defectors (Jang Seiul), and “World Women Defectors’ Support Association” (Kim Hee-yeon).

The defectors were referring to the system in South Korean parliamentary elections whereby parties are allocated extra seats after the election. In the 300-seat assembly, 253 are elected positions and 47 allocated proportionally to parties according to their percentage share of the popular vote. 

The issue is that while the PPP chooses most candidates for proportional seats in a rational manner, the choice from among North Korean defectors is random.

“In the various sectors of society, the party usually accepts recommendations or ratings made by civic organizations in the respective sector,” said Jang Seiul of the National Association of North Korean Defectors. “This would work with defectors because there are many related civic groups. But the party doesn’t consult with them at all.”

Three defectors are in fact in the line-up for proportional seats for the PPP for the election on April 10. Their selection was not directly criticized by any of the speakers. Instead, all of them endorsed Kim Seong-min as the most suitable candidate. 

Kim was an army officer in North Korea and escaped in 1999 after being warned that the secret police were about to arrest him for having exchanged letters with someone overseas. In South Korea, he became a dissident activist and founded Free North Korea Radio.

“Kim Seong-min is a pioneer in the North Korea human rights community,” Jang said. “He is highly respected for his passion and is seen as a model for others to follow.” 

Heo Gwang-il of the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights said Kim is an “unwavering warrior” and noted that when he was diagnosed six years ago with terminal cancer, he did not let up on his human rights activities. 

Jang called out what he called a “North-South golden spoons” practice in which defectors who are elite in North Korea ascend to high positions in South Korea. “We should stop this,” he said, adding sarcastically that if Kim Jong-un’s sister Yo-jong defected, she would be invited to join the National Assembly.

North Korean defectors have been arriving in South Korea in significant numbers for over 30 years now. They experience considerable difficulties settling in. The unemployment rate is about 2.5 times higher than the average and the suicide rate is reported to be nearly three times higher. The first defector to become a lawmaker was former Kim Il Sung University professor Cho Myung-chul, who gained a proportional representation seat for the Saenuri Party, an earlier version of the PPP, in 2012. He was followed in 2020 by Thae Yong-ho, and Ji Seong-ho for the United Future Party, which was renamed the PPP.

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